Keith Wingeard, 125
In my humble opinion, one of the best ways to illustrate cultural differences is to use an anecdotal story to provide examples and context to cultural traits in practice. So with this in mind, the following is a recap of my experience as a ‘chaperon’ on our school’s Field Trip to the Nong Khai Aquarium.
Thailand, the ‘Land of Smiles,’ is known throughout the world for its people’s charming tendency to smile. This is true for many reasons. I have found Thai people to be genuinely friendly and welcoming during my time here, so that’s one aspect of it. There is also another side to the famous Thai smile: it is unacceptable to publicly shame or ‘break’ someone’s face, so if there is any difficult or unpleasant situation that arises, Thai people will tend to grin from ear to ear despite their anger, frustration, and/or misunderstanding of any problem that arises. And finally, Thai people generally love fun, or ‘sanuk’ as it’s known in Thai, and love nothing more than having fun with friends regardless of the setting. As more than one colleague has told me during my time here, if it’s not sanuk, why do it?
So, knowing this, when my co-teacher came up to me a few months ago to tell me I needed to “wake up early and come to school at 6am,” I did the only thing one can do in these situations in Thailand: I smiled. While I consider myself a friendly person, and I love fun just as much as the next person, this particular smile was one that fit into that second category. Not only would we be missing an entire day of class, but I would have to wake up and be at school 2 hours earlier than usual. But knowing there wasn’t really anything I could do about it, I just smiled.
The day of the field trip, I walked the two minute walk from my house to my school and arrived around 6:05am. To my surprise, things were already moving along relatively smoothly; we had the 12 tour buses our school rented out all ready to take all of our 2nd, 4th, and 6th graders, and a group of preschoolers, to the Aquarium in Nong Khai. This amounted to around 450 students, chaperoned by all 35 teachers at our school. Along with 2 other teachers I work with, I was assigned to chaperone a class of 6th graders I knew pretty well. After checking in with a few other teachers, I boarded the bus around 6:20am and was ready to go.
Everyone else, though, seemed to be less ready. There were students running from bus to bus to check if there were any students that were absent, and other boys that were given the responsibility of delivering each group’s water bottles and lunch snacks. As the valuable morning minutes ticked by, I began to wonder why I needed to be at school at 6am. Fortunately, all the necessary pre-departure checks were made, and finally, around 7:15am, our fleet of tour buses headed out.
As a veteran of many Field Trips in the United States, both with schools and summer camps, this is usually the point where chaperones or leaders go over proper bus safety procedures. Seat belts, for example, might be buckled up, or maybe kids are told to avoid loud outbursts so the driver isn’t distracted. However, after 2 years here I also understand that some things are done differently in Thailand, and was content to just be an observer of the day’s excursion and to help whenever asked.
So when the usual bus safety overview was skipped, I didn’t think much of it. However, around 7:20am, about 5 minutes into our trip, I noticed that not only were seat belts nowhere to be found, but most of the students weren’t even sitting. Then, the music started.
And when I mean music, I mean Thai-style, speakers blasting, bass-thumping, Karaoke-singing ‘music’. Our bus had two microphones, and two very loud 6th grade girls wanted everyone to know they weren’t afraid to use them. Then the disco ball lights went on. Then the green lasers went on. And by this time, out of the 30 or so students, 3 teachers, and 1 driver on the bus, only 4 people were still sitting down. Luckily for us, the driver was one of them.
So while we’re flying down a very bumpy, partially under construction Thai highway at 80 km/hr (or 5o mph), all of the students on the bus were singing, dancing, shouting, or all three at once in the aisles of our tour bus, getting thrown back into a random seat whenever we went over a particularly large pothole.
I also forgot to mention earlier that my province, Loei, doesn’t have any aquariums. Whether or not there were any other suitable field trip options in Loei, I suppose, is entirely irrelevant. This was an aquarium field trip. So we were on our way to the aquarium in NongKhai, three provinces over. Again, I understand things are different here, but I don’t recall ever going on a field trip to North Dakota when I was in school.
Anyway, the trip to NongKhai, with the Karaoke blasting and students swaying in the aisles the entire way there, took around 3 hours. Finally, around 10:15am, we had arrived at the NongKhai Aquarium. I assumed this meant we would be getting the most out of our long trip and staying for a while. At least through lunch, maybe even beyond. I walked through the aquarium, looking at each tank and began to realize I was mistaken once again. Aquariums are actually opportunities for Thai students to race through the building as quickly as possible. Huh, who knew?
By 11am, 45 minutes after we had arrived, all 450 students had entered and exited the aquarium. By 11:15am, we were all back on the Karaoke bus and on our way to stop no. 2, the NongKhai market, where students were given an opportunity to walk around, take pictures, and spend whatever money their parents might have given to them. We spent about an hour at the market, leaving around 12:30pm, ready once again for the 3 hour Karaoke dance party that is a Thai field trip, all the way back to school.
Which brings me back to cultural differences: while this story may seem outrageous in many ways (and certainly felt that way while I was experiencing it), it does make a lot of sense, culturally speaking. First, Karaoke is huge here, regardless of age, so there’s that. And second, road safety is less of a priority in Thailand, for better or worse.
Finally, like I mentioned at the beginning, having ‘fun’ is a central component to how Thai people go about living their lives. For these students, the point of the field trip wasn’t so much being at an aquarium and walking around a market, it was about getting a day to spend with their classmates away from the usual school setting, singing their favorite songs, laughing, and having fun while they did it.
For me, it was a reminder to live in the moment, to make the most out of whatever situation I find myself in, and to simply remember to have fun. As they say, life is for living, right? Now, granted, safety is very important. But maybe there is a balance that can be reached between the two extremes of silent students seat-belted into place and a Karaoke party bus with students dancing in the aisles. Generally speaking, however, I’m glad Thailand has helped to remind me that life is short so we should enjoy it while we can.